The subject line of the e-mail message read: “Why Muslims can’t be good Americans.” Audrey Allas, 22, had received the chain message from a member of the church in which she grew up but no longer attended. She knew the content of the message was full of lies, yet she chose to respond—kindly, respectfully—with the truth. As Allas typed her reply, she drew on her experience working at the Interfaith Youth Core. As an intern with the organization, she collaborated with Muslims daily, befriended Muslims and participated in dialogue and service projects with them. She clicked “Send” and hoped for the best.
The response that came from the church’s members was not as kind, however. Many were angered by what Allas had written and told her so, even going so far as to accuse her of being a “secret Muslim.” Her parents, who had responded as well, also received angry, accusatory e-mail messages. They are now searching for a new church.
“Interfaith Youth Core gave me that motivation to stand up,” Allas told America. “If I hadn’t been involved in the movement, I might have been silent in that issue. I’ve met Muslim people, and I care about them.”
The courage and commitment to truth displayed by this young woman is the kind Eboo Patel hoped to foster when in 1998, at the age of 22, he co-founded the Interfaith Youth Core. The Core—spelled this way to represent its place at the center of a larger movement—works to provide the tools and support college students need to become leaders in interreligious dialogue. These leaders, Patel says, are young men and women “who have the framework, the knowledge base and the skill set to bring people from different religions together to build understanding and cooperation.” In light of the ongoing and much-publicized controversy surrounding Park51, the proposed Islamic center a few blocks from ground zero in New York City, as well as the anti-Islam protests popping up in cities across the country, these skills are especially needed today.
“The Park51 controversy, in a way, exposed the levels of anti-Islam sentiment and Islamophobia in America,” said Patel. “The part of it that I find so disturbing is that it’s what I call an educated bigotry, which means that people have sought information that confirms their worst fears about Muslims and Islam.”
Patel says that while being interviewed on National Public Radio he has heard from callers who use words like Shariah, dawa and taqiyya, but few of the callers truly understand the meaning or implication of these terms. Patel credits the “industry of Islamophobia” for this, which he describes as those “peddling a distorted image of Islam and Muslims and advancing the line that all Muslims want to dominate.” These individuals have books, Web sites and speaking tours and use the terms as “a kind of anti-Islam propaganda,” he said.Distinguishing Islam From Terrorism
This propaganda feeds into the worst fears of many Americans. “People see acts of violence committed in the name of Islam, and then they hear somebody say, ‘This is what Muslims are called to do,’” said Patel. “What these anti-Muslim bigots do is effectively confirm that narrative and say, ‘Yes, the narrative of Osama bin Laden is the true Islam.’”
Such misinformation is not coming only from the fringes. Patel says the mainstream media sometimes play a part—albeit a less deliberate one—as well. Osama bin Laden videotapes beheadings because he knows that the American media will show the footage, said Patel. “For Bin Laden the videotape is even more important than the beheading because the videotape poisons the image of Islam in the world,” he said. “It creates an us-versus-them scenario: that Muslims are opposed to the world. If all you know about Islam is that videotape, that’s your image of Muslims.”
But the distinction between Islam and terrorist organizations is key to understanding the situation at Park51 and to rebutting claims that establishing the center shows insensitivity toward the families of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Patel says when the difference is made clear, so is the fact that the center poses no threat to America or to the memory of those who died at ground zero. “How is it insensitive for a group of Americans in a mixed neighborhood—one that includes strip clubs, off-track betting parlors and restaurants—to start an interfaith center in the neighborhood that they have been present in for two decades?” Patel asked.
A look at the history of American Catholics, and the prejudice they have faced, can offer some perspective, Patel says. “One hundred years ago, the line against Catholics was that Catholics were the ‘alien Roman,’ that they were papists, that their fidelity to the Vatican meant that they could never be loyal Americans. You literally hear the exact same charges leveled against Muslims: Their fidelity to the Quran means they can never be loyal Americans. Muslims are Islamists. It’s the alien Muslim.”
John T. McGreevy and Scott Appleby, both of the University of Notre Dame, drew similar parallels in a recent article in The New York Review of Books titled “Catholics, Muslims, and the Mosque Controversy.” It took Catholics more than a century to gain acceptance, but eventually, McGreevy and Appleby write, American Catholics earned that acceptance both by transforming their own church and “by serving (and dying for) their country, and building their own churches, schools and health care systems alongside public counterparts, which they also frequented and supported with their taxes.” An overwhelming majority of American Muslims, the authors argue, are now trying to do the same. According to the authors, Park51 is just one more sign of the desire among American Muslims for full participation in American society, and the builders must not be denied that right: “If the Catholic experience in the United States holds any lesson,” they write, “it is that becoming American also means asserting one’s constitutional rights, fully and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally taken to be insulting.”Collaborative Action
Patel hopes that the Interfaith Youth Core will help young adults gain confidence in their ability to express their faith to others, so that common misconceptions of American Muslims and of people of all faiths can be broken down and those working toward inclusion might be able to offer an organized and respectful response to all prejudice.
“A good bit of this anti-Muslim hatred is being sacralized,” said Patel. “It’s being articulated in theological terms. The guy leading the Quran burning in Florida says, ‘This is what Jesus would do.’ The people who are in favor of burning the Quran in the name of Jesus preach from the pulpit about that message every Sunday…. Those of us who believe in embracing our neighbors of different backgrounds [have to ask ourselves]: Are we as loud? Are we as forthright? Are we as compelling? Are we as cogent?”
What those seeking inclusion need now, Patel says, is a renewed sense of urgency and a renewed commitment to dialogue and deliberate collaborative action. “It’s not about saying all religions are the same; it’s not even about saying all religions are equal,” he said. “It’s about saying that people from different faith backgrounds ought to come together in ways that build understanding and cooperation. We consider intolerance and bigotry a severe threat to pluralism.” Patel envisions congregational partnerships between churches and mosques, which might include religious leaders giving speeches at the other’s house of worship and religious groups working together on interfaith service projects.
The idea of service is key to a successful dialogue and is particularly effective in a college campus setting, since college students often have the resources, infrastructure and enthusiasm to organize effective and far-reaching projects, Patel said. Interreligious service projects allow students to relate not only to peers of other faiths, but can easily include students who do not subscribe to a particular faith or who may have given up on the idea of God altogether. Individuals of all backgrounds are able to draw upon common values or influences. “What we really put at the center of the table is the shared values of service, mercy and compassion,” said Patel. “And then we invite people to speak to how their tradition inspires them to apply that shared value.”
Patel’s own religious experience has been influenced by a diverse group of spiritual men and women, all of whom have helped him to strengthen his own Muslim faith. His interest in the life of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, led him to embark on a tour of Catholic Worker houses along the East Coast during college.Campus Volunteers
College is a formative time for many young adults, and Patel believes that Catholic colleges and universities have a special ability—responsibility even—to foster interfaith dialogue on campus. “I really think that the Catholic universities have a leg up on many other universities, because they have taken volunteerism seriously for many, many years,” Patel said. “They naturally connect faith to volunteering. So many Catholic universities have diverse student populations or exist in areas in which diversity is around them. Catholic universities, because they take their own faith seriously, have appreciative understanding of other people’s faiths…. I think every college campus ought to consider itself a model of interfaith cooperation.” Colleges can effectively live that model by offering courses, lectures, training and service projects with an eye to religious diversity and dialogue, he said.
The Core has worked on more than 150 campuses across the nation, including more than 30 Catholic universities, like Chicago’s DePaul University, Loyola University of Chicago, Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., Loyola University of Maryland, Saint Mary’s College near San Francisco and Xavier University in Cincinnati. As the organization grows, Patel hopes the dialogue will grow with it.
Years ago, as a 22-year-old interested in his faith—and the faith of others—Patel noticed that most of the individuals interested in interreligious dialogue were not his contemporaries. Many who were actively participating in dialogue were decades older, while many young adults closer to his age seemed to spend time with others like themselves or even to favor more fundamentalist views. The Core came out of Patel’s desire to challenge his peers to enter into conversation with one another. In the 21st century, most people view religion in one of four ways, said Patel: “It can be a bubble of isolation, a barrier of division, a bomb of destruction or a bridge of cooperation. And what those four things have in common is this: They are answers to the question, How do I respond to diversity?”
While negative influences encourage some to respond with barriers or bombs, the major faith traditions do not urge such action. “There are resources within our faith communities and a call from the divine to build a bridge to diversity—a bridge of cooperation using the raw materials of the theology of your faith—and to walk across that bridge to serve others,” he said. “There are really fruitful dialogues to have on shared values—mercy, service, compassion.”
Patel said that the way these values manifest themselves, however, can differ. “Just because Muslims believe in mercy and Catholics believe in mercy doesn’t mean we believe we walk the same path toward mercy,” he said. “So the interesting dimension of that dialogue is: What is it in your tradition of Catholicism that inspires you to act in mercy? You get these very rich stories from Catholics about the works of Jesus, about a Scripture from the Bible, and you get these rich stories from Muslims about Muslim prayers about mercy and about stories relating to Muhammad.”
In sharing these stories, individuals of faith must recall, retell and reflect on them once again, which often gives participants new perspective on their own faith. “The way we frame our question—How does your tradition inspire you to serve others?—is constantly referring young people back to a tradition,” Patel said. “Our process helps reconnect young people with traditions that they might have felt, for whatever reason, estranged from or they have gone astray from. I hear with some frequency young people saying the process of interfaith service compelled me to go back to church because I saw, in explaining it, how my religion inspired me to serve others.”
Listen to an interview  with Eboo Patel.